How to run a successful political campaign

Recommendations For How to Run a Successful Political Campaign

As extracted from a lecture given at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 by UK parliamentarian Lembit Oepik:

The main gist appeared to be (a) get yourself prepared, (b) learn how to communicate, and most important of all (c) do not act like a True Believer, treating with disdain anybody not yet married to the cause

  • Be an expert
  • Describe a danger or issue that people understand
  • Do it with a smile
  • Don’t involve yourself in other issues
  • Keep in mind the ultimate goal: be ready for when the danger materializes
  • Clarify from the start your assumptions, the barriers on the path to success, and what organization you are going to need
  • Politically, the main goal is establishing a Task Force to get the Government to take ownership of the problem.
  • Facts and responsibilities must be clearly established. “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself
  • Prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand
  • Question yourself: why would a Government care?
  • Write to your MP asking for something to be done
  • Understand the letter will be passed to a “researcher”. Write it so as to help the researcher find the necessary information
  • For the Media, prepare a handful of established pictures and stick to those, so you won’t have to describe the basics of your problem again and again
  • Get ready for a long wait for “next big push”, when the campaign runs out of steam

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Lembit Oepik has been the LibDem MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales since 1997

Officially, his lecture at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 was on the cheerful topic of “We are all going to die

Self-styled profile provided at the lecture included age, Estonian parents escapees from Stalin, a birth in Northern Ireland (admittedly, not the wisest choice for emigrating a place to), a degree, a long-standing passion for Astronomy, and being a risk taker.

His grandfather was Ernst Julius Oepik, who did NEOs NEOs (Near Earth Objects, i.e. asteroids and comets flying close to our planet)work in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was particularly unfashionable.

Lembit Oepik wanted to get the UK government interested in NEOs.

He started by asking himself why would a Government care, so that they’d take seriously the threat of an asteroid smashing against our planet

Cynically, Governments won’t be interested in “extinction level events” wiping out most of humanity: if that were to be announced, all the Government would think of is that they will not lose next election.

It’s all different with relatively small impacts: a 300m-diameter asteroid could cause catastrophic effects on the economy or social cohesion, without killing billions of people. The Government would be left with the job of patching things up together again.

How to establish then a Campaign to defend ourselves against NEOs? Oepik and his team defined their Assumptions (date is early 1999)

1. A future impact is a certainty
2. It can definitely destroy civilization without wiping out humanity
3. We are taking care of lower risks already, incidents and disaster with far easier consequences
4. The threat from NEOs is not taken seriously
5. There is no sign of any Government working on this.

(Three interesting facts as an aside:
(i) If the Tunguska asteroid or comet of 1908 had hit a few hours later, say, just on top of Westminster Abbey (similar latitude), most of London would have been wiped out
(ii) A 15-km asteroid would be enough to kill up to 90% of humanity. That would leave alive a still sizable 600 millions of us)
(iii) Whatever solution we come up about the threat of NEOs, it may still not be enough. An asteroid zipping on the other side of the solar system that gets aimed at us as if straight from the Sun, would be invisible in the glare of the stellar light, and detected (if at all) when it’s way too late)

Then Oepik listed the Barriers:

1. Governments follow “fashion”
2. Governments think about elections, voters’ fears and anything that can hurt them
3. On a human timescale, hugely-disastrous NEO collisions against our planet are rare an event. If we would be living for 100,000 years, we would witness a couple of terrible impacts. We can only expect a Tunguska event every 100 years.
4. Space is not as fashionable nowadays as in 1969

The Campaign was then organized around:

a) Goal
b) Core Proposition
c) Timetable
d) Team
e) Political Strategy
f) Media Strategy

Goal: Create a NEO task force to investigate the threat and publish a Government report with recommendations for actions

Core proposition: Present the effort for tracking NEOs as an insurance policy (comes down to around 10€ per citizen). Computations were based on actuarial risks: insurance experts can calculate the short- and long-term costs of action and inaction, for countries and insurance companies. This is easy then to compare with impact devastation, and with other risks

Timetable: Relevant Ministerial Department contacted in March 99; Parliamentary debate in April 99; Task Force established in December 99; Report published in December 2000; Actions from 2001 onwards

(Actually, finding the right department has been a challenge in itself. Oepik run into a bit of luck as the long-standing Minister for DTI (Lord Sainsbury) was personally interested)

Political strategy: Make NEO threats a public talking point. Establish facts and responsibilities. And “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself

It is also important to prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand, making sure the Government spokesman on the floor is aware of what request is going to be submitted.

Media strategy: Elicit press interest. Scare tactics are Ok in this case as the upcoming disaster is a certainty. “Near misses” by NEOs must be publicized, along with the effects they would have had had they stricken our planet.

The aim is to balance the politicians’ neglect and the media’s sensationalism, sometimes destructive irony and sarcasm.

(Oepik saw himself described alternatively as the Savior, or the Destroyer of Planet Earth, when the asteroid sporting his grandfather’s name was mistakenly thought approaching our planet)

A handful of established pictures are very helpful, as after they are distributed through the popular press, they can easily be used in the future to recall the whole issue in the minds of the readers without having to explain the whole problem all over again.

(In another case of hard luck, a “miracle” happened in the midst of Oepik’s efforts, and 2 movies came out of Hollywood on the topic of NEO threats: “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”, the latter with Bruce Willis. It became much easier to get the media interested)

Situation now: The Task Force was established without much of a problem, and included topmost scientists. As a positive sign of strength, Oepik himself did not have to be a member of it.

After a year, the Task Force came out with 14 recommendations. Only one of them has been implemented: the Government has pushed for NEO threats to be considered as facts, with regular coverage by the media.

Oepik is now waiting for the opportunity for “next big push”, something to get the remaining 13 recommendations back on top of the Government’s priorities.

He is also asking everybody interested in the issue to write to their own MP asking for all recommendations to be implemented asap

The evening ended with a Q&A session. Oepik re-asserted his conviction that scare tactics are in this case justified, as chances of dying because of an asteroid impact are superior to those winning the UK lottery. He wasn’t clear however on how he planned to differentiate his campaign from others also using scare tactics.

Finally, Oepik strongly recommended not getting oneself embroiled in other, even similar campaigns, so as not to lose focus